Christmas Wonder

One of the greatest dangers we face in ministry is losing the wonder of what we speak about. The demands of ministry are always high, and this year, maybe even higher. There are the expectations of people, the burden of creativity (only two pairs of Gospel chapters to preach from!), the pastoral concerns that don’t lessen in the dark days of December, extra responsibilities and expectations at home, and so on. How easy it is to lose the wonder of Christmas!

I don’t want to try to prescribe how to keep the wonder of it all this Christmas. I just want to suggest that we do. What will it take? Time with family – proper time? Extra guarded time alone with God? Is there music that triggers your awe at the Incarnation? Or a good book? Whatever it takes.

As we head into this unusual Christmas season, there are definitely pressures building on us. Let’s look to be captured by the grace of God as he chose to step into our messy world. Let’s look to be gripped by the hope held out in the Christmas story for a dark hurting world full of sinners – sinners ruled by sinners, threatened by death, worried about issues local and global (true then as it is true now!) Let’s look to be stirred afresh by the history-hinge of the Incarnation.

Ponder the first Christmas in all its gritty reality. Ponder the Incarnation in all its theological wonder. Ponder the questions raised for the first characters as they watched it unfold. Ponder the answers given to any willing to probe the truths of biblical revelation. Ponder the journey Jesus took from Bethlehem to the Cross. Ponder the everlasting nature of Christ taking on flesh. Ponder the hope that we have of seeing him one day for ourselves. Ponder. Ignite the wonder. Whatever it takes.

Who Will Be There After Lockdown?

We don’t know how long we will be locked down, but it will be longer than any of us would prefer.  I think it is important for us to think and pray about the gaps that this unique season will create in our churches, as well as the new people that could be added.

For the first couple of weeks most churches have leapt into action learning how to livestream Sunday services and how to create some sort of face-to-face replacement for home groups.  Some have thought about offering extra resources for people stuck at home.  But as this situation wears on, we will become more and more aware that when we are allowed to come back together as a church, it will probably not be with the same people as before.  Let’s prayerfully ponder these two lists and consider what steps we can be taking now that will change the face of our regathering:

Gaps Created

  1. Some may be promoted to Christ’s presence.  Statistics tell us that this will most likely be the vulnerable through age or underlying medical conditions, but in human terms, nobody is as safe as we used to feel.  Let’s pray about how to support not only those who feel fear at this time, but also for those who may come to the end of their time here during this time, and also the families of any that are lost to this disease (or to any other cause during this time of separation).
  2. Some may drift and grow cold.  The burning coal, when separated from the other coals, will quickly cool down.  Pray about how to pursue, support, encourage and maintain the connection of younger or less-well-rooted believers who are more prone to drift.  We all know people who don’t have the same convictions about the need for fellowship, teaching, worship, community, etc.  The casual approach may seem to work in comfortable times, but it may be seen in its true light under these pressures.
  3. Some marriages may implode.  It would be naive to think that every Christian couple are thriving under lockdown.  We have a newly married couple living opposite us and it is fun to watch them learn to skate together and playing games, but this is no honeymoon for the vast majority of couples.  Some are desperately struggling already and don’t have the release valve of work or time apart with friends.  We have to pray about this and be proactive in supporting every couple in our churches.
  4. Some may grow embittered or lose heart.  The constant bombardment of negative news will overwhelm any of us.  I pray that people in my church will see God answering prayer in specific ways, but what if some don’t?  Pray for the people in your church who are more likely to dwell on the negative news than feast on the hope in God’s Word.  They are extra vulnerable without church fellowship to influence them.
  5. Some may be beaten down by circumstance or enemy attack.  Remember the parable of the soils.  If only everyone in our churches were good soil and now leaning into this crisis ready to bear multiplied fruit.  Sadly some will find this season is the time where the heat of the day, or the seed-theft of sinister birds will undo their apparent participation in the community of God’s people.  Perhaps it is helpful to reveal those who aren’t really truly receptive, but pastorally it is painful to see it happen.  Let’s pray for the spiritually vulnerable and pray about how to pursue the straying sheep – whether they are already saved or not, they need Jesus.

Gaps Filled

  1. Returning drifters need somewhere to land – There are people who used to be actively involved in the life of the church, but life took its toll and they drifted.  Whatever their state was spiritually, this shaking of their world may be God’s tool to draw them to Himself.  Pray about how your church can not only be church to each other during this crisis, but how can you be welcoming and inviting to others who may be looking to reintegrate into gospel community?
  2. The lost can be found – God is an expert at winning the hearts of those who have been hard to Him.  Again, pray about how your online church can reach people – not only the formal streaming (is that accessible?), but also evangelistic resources that your people can share with those who may be open in a new way.  We can’t just expect people to flock to church some months down the line when our doors open again, we need to be proactively welcoming and engaging with people now.  Wouldn’t it be awesome to look back on this as a season of wonderful evangelistic fruitfulness for our churches?!

Who else would you add to this list?  I am not offering answers, but my prayer is that this post can help us to pray and adjust for the sake of the people in and around our churches at this time.


This Bible highlight from last week relates to this post:

5 Aspects of Feeding the Flock

One of the main responsibilities of the shepherds of a local church is to feed the flock.  What does this involve?

1. A biblical diet, not a provision of pastoral personality – Some pulpits have degenerated into a weekly opportunity for the flock to enjoy the pastor’s eloquence or humour.  He may be a godly man, an inspiring man, a kind man, or whatever, but his job is to point the flock to the Word of God, not his own brand of pious oratory.

2. A consistent diet, not a sporadic scattering of random teaching – Some churches receive an incredibly inconsistent diet – some from the same preacher who shifts and changes with the wind, others from multiple speakers who visit to preach but can never lead.  It is good for a preacher to include variety and to keep learning.  It is good for guest speakers to be used judiciously by a church leadership.  But if the net effect of either approach is an inconsistent diet, then the flock will not be properly fed (and the flock will also not trust the church to be a safe place for bringing guests – an important side effect of inconsistency!)

3. A cumulative diet, not a hodge-podge of unordered repetition – Some churches get to digest a diet that has no cumulative structure.  That is, each Sunday the pastor or varied speakers offer whatever they feel led to bring on that Sunday.  Again, there is place for space in the schedule – buffer weeks to allow for teaching that was unplanned months before but is on target in the moment.  However, when churches lean too much into this approach what they end up getting is not a balanced diet, but an overload of certain favourite subjects and passages.  Repetition can become the name of the game.

4. A healthy diet, not a toxic overload of fast food entertainment – Listeners love to have itching ears scratched with entertainment, experience and surface level applicational teaching.  The shepherds of a church need to recognize that the sheep may not know what is best for their diet.  Too much sugar will poison a person, and too little healthy teaching will do profound damage to a church.

5. A Christ-focused diet, not a pseudo-Christian selection of self-help nibbles – Building on the previous point, people love to nibble on self-help top-tips wrapped in Bible stories and garnished with proof texts.  However, if the preacher is pointing listeners to themselves, to their efforts, to their application, to their discipline, then that preacher is not primarily pointing people to Christ.  The preaching may feel very churchy, but is it actually Christian?

Feeding the flock is an important responsibility.  Let’s look at our own preaching, as well as the preaching plan for our churches.  Let’s prayerfully consider whether we are offering health to our listeners.  Like a good parent you won’t be able to serve up a feast at every meal, but you will look to offer health at every opportunity.

Humility Optional?

If you look around Christianity you will find humility is a fairly common thread, at least in theory.  Humility is in the DNA of salvation, for we cannot be saved unless we humble ourselves before God’s loving provision in Jesus’ death on the cross.  Humility is a staple ingredient in spiritual growth, for we cannot stand proud and still find the growth that is needed in the spiritual life.  Humility is a requirement in leadership, for we cannot successfully replace the servant leader model so central to Christian ministry.

And yet this thread which weaves through all theoretical Christianity is often more sparse in the real Christianity we observe.  There are always gospel presentations that appeal to self-interest and doing what is best for yourself.  There seems to be a never-ending stream of spiritual growth models that focus on our success oriented efforts to sort out our weaknesses and try harder to be good.  And for every humble leader in the church, we tend to find another that reeks of arrogance and pride.

It is clear that humility is woven through the fabric of our faith, but there is also a strong tendency toward pride that saturates our fallen flesh and inclines us to find ways around humility in the Christian life.

Is humility optional?

Humility is not just a preference.  It would be possible to view humility as a divine preference, one item on God’s wishlist for his people.  I like potatoes, but if someone in my family wants to cook a meal for me, they know that they can cook a meal without potatoes and I will still enjoy it.  Potatoes are a preference, but not really a requirement.  Is this how God feels about humility?  Is it a nice touch when he sees it, but not really a problem if it happens to be omitted?  No, humility is not just a preference.

Humility is not an arbitrary demand.  It would be possible to view humility as something God requires, one item on a harsh list of demands for his people.  If I were a tyrant in my home, then I could make a list of demands on my family members.  They might be able to satisfy my demands in some respects, but they might recognize that they could never do everything on my impossible list.  They might hope that I would not pay attention to the missed demands if enough of the others were satisfied.  Is this how it is with God?  No, humility is not an arbitrary demand.

Humility is not a contrast.  It would be possible to view humility as something God requires because it is the complement to his personality.  Again, if I insisted on being the focus of all attention in my home, then I might require humility of everyone else so that nobody else would ever threaten the spotlight in which I insisted that I live.  Is this how it is with God?  No, humility is not a contrast to God’s character.

Humility is not just a preference, an arbitrary demand, nor a contrasting quality to God.  Humility is in the DNA of Christianity because it is a distinctive feature of God’s character.  We were created in God’s image, made for profoundly other-centered relationship, but when we fell into sin something profoundly corrupt perverted our core inclinations.  As fallen humans we are turned in on ourselves, we are proud.  We believe that we don’t need God or other people and we default to trying to be independent in any way that we can.  The pull of that fallen tendency continues to exert force on every one of us.

Yes, Jesus entered our world and rocked our world with a profound contrast – willingly humbling himself not only to wash feet, but even to die a humiliating death in our place.  God is nothing like the pride in you, or me.  So we are invited to humble ourselves before the cross and find true life, not by our own achievement, but by the gift of God’s grace.  We know that, and yet even as Christians, we still feel the tug toward prideful independence.  Subconsciously we will drift toward self-effort and self-elevation.  Our view of spiritual growth will tend to have the aroma of arrogance, and if we are not careful, then our efforts at Christian leadership will often be tainted by the stench of self-promotion.

Humility is not just something God prefers, as I like potatoes, but am fine without them.  Humility is not an arbitrary demand we can hope to bypass.  Nor is humility a contrast to God’s supposed demand for the spotlight.  Humility makes sense in every corner of our Christianity.  It makes sense because it is a key aspect of God’s character.  It makes sense because he has rescued us, and is rescuing us, from our fall into pride.  Humility is always a heaven-ward step.

What role does humility play in your spiritual life?  What role does it play in your ministry and leadership?  And I don’t just mean in theory.  I mean in actual practice…

Preaching Myths – Part 1

There are plenty of myths floating around.  You may have heard of some.  You may have thought of others.  Here are a few that bear a little bit of scrutiny.  Let’s start with this one:

1. Since the preacher was led by God in the preparation, it would be wrong to evaluate the sermon.

Here is one I heard a few years ago.  Astonishingly, it was spoken by a church leader in reference to a visiting speaker.  The speaker had preached a message that was technically wrong in some details, but more overwhelmingly unhelpful as a whole.  I gently mentioned this to a more senior leader in the church who made it clear that it was not his place to evaluate what this godly man had been led to by God in his preparations.  Huh?

Here’s one reason why this dear brother was wrong.  The pastoral leadership of a church has the biblically defined role of shepherding the flock, which includes at least four elements.  The shepherds, that is, the pastors or elders, are responsible for the feeding and leading of the flock, as well as making sure it is protected and cared for.  All four elements of the leadership role come into play when a sermon is preached.  Whether the elder/pastor is preaching or not, he is responsible.  Therefore, if a visiting preacher is unhelpful in any of these areas, it is the spiritual responsibility of the leadership to evaluate that message and determine whether something needs to be done retrospectively or just in anticipation of any future visit.  Non-evaluation is not a spiritual option, it is pastoral abdication.

That is specifically in respect to the pastoral leadership, but what about the average listener?  Acts 17:11 is informative for us: The Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians – they listened intently to the apostles and they checked the Scriptures to see if what they heard was so.  There is no footnote or marginal comment that adds, “but if the preacher has prayerfully prepared then the above referenced eagerness and Scriptural evaluation does not apply.”

Next time we will look at another sermon evaluation myth.

Down, But Not Out!

I have been reflecting recently on what regular up-front ministry involves.  Whether one is a youth leader, a church leader, a regular preacher, a Sunday School teacher, etc, these and other ministries share something in common.  I’ll use preaching as the example for this brief post.

After preaching, if you are like most preacher’s, you probably don’t feel great every time.  It is nice, but it doesn’t always help to receive the positive feedback from folks.  Even with all positive feedback, it is easy to come away discouraged and drained, often self-evaluating and majoring on the minor mistakes made.

To go through this on a regular basis can lead to higher level (or should I say, deeper) draining.  Some of the great preachers of history struggled with depression.  Many of us also face the energy sapping that comes from regular ministry, whether or not it gets to that level.

I don’t want to use Paul’s words in 2Cor.4, because that would be an insult to the persecution he faced (and many of our brothers and sisters today).  However, in a very scaled down version we do need that same sense of being knocked down, but not knocked out.  Sunday comes, we give.  Monday comes, we may be drained and discouraged.  But Tuesday comes and we must stand up and press on!  How?  Only by keeping our eyes on Him who doesn’t change and is the same Sunday, Monday and Tuesday!

Clusters and Journeys

Influencers are leaders.  So preachers are leaders.  But how much do we lead in our preaching?  Take the issue of preaching calendars, for example.  At one extreme we have churches that have no calendar planned, or only preachers planned (but no subjects/texts).  I suppose the ultimate example might be  church that relies fully on visiting speakers who all choose their own message for each service.  At the other extreme we have churches who carefully map out the entire year of preaching, so that you can know now what text will be preached the second Sunday of next October.

Some would hold that only the Holy Spirit should lead the church, and thus the random outside preacher approach is fine since God can work through whoever is preaching.  I suppose we could all agree to that in principle, but at the same time, I want to graciously ask a question of that approach.  Is there not the risk of simply presenting biblical truths without any sense of deliberately leading the church forward on its journey?  How much opportunity is missed by “simply preaching” without really tapping into the broader reality of the growth of the local church?

Now for those who have a well-planned preaching calendar.  Is it merely constructed by the gathering of series in some attempt to give a balanced diet?  That’s a good start, but again, are we failing to lead as well as the opportunity affords?  Do we fall into preaching collections of random messages strung together by the unity of a Bible book, or a series title, but fail to prayerfully plot the journey of the church?  Or are we plotting a journey 16 months in advance and failing to take stock of where we actually have travelled several months into the year?

One further thought.  Do we rely on one-hit messages to achieve change when really we would be far better with a cluster of messages approach? One-hit messages can be stand alone, or they can be a series that moves from one thing to the next, without the clustering power intended by a series.

Wherever our church sits on the scale of pre-planned preaching schedules, all of us are in danger of missing out on the opportunity to really lead the church as we preach.  Let’s prayerfully consider how God would have us carry the burden of leadership, every time we plan a preaching schedule, and every time we preach.

Cliches, Soundbites and Pithy Grabbers – Beware

Even for the vast majority of us who are not “broadcast” when we preach, there is still a temptation to achieve good soundbites. On one hand, this is not too far from the goal of having a single sentence summary statement, a big idea, a main idea, a proposition, a take-home truth or whatever you call it. The condensed nature of a single sentence aids the unity of the message, the effectiveness of communication and the memorability of the important core of the message. On the other hand, too many soundbites, cliches or pithy grabbers can be very detrimental.

Have you ever had a conversation with someone who only seems to speak in cliches? I’ve had the privilege a couple of times. It doesn’t take long before you don’t feel that they are actually in a conversation with you. It soon feels like they are looking for the next opportunity to role out one of their catchphrases. Despite your best efforts, you can’t help but suspect a lack of authenticity.

The effect created in a couple of minutes of conversation with a “soundbiter” is just a rapid version of listening to a “soundbiter” preaching. After the positive effects wear off, it doesn’t feel like they’re talking to you. It feels pre-packaged, inauthentic, fake.

It’s good to have principles that you live by and lead by, it’s good to be a clear communicator who is memorable, catchy, pithy and precise. However, you can have too much of a good thing. Don’t put your listeners through endless concatenations of cliches when you’re preaching. Even when you’re not preaching, in other leadership communication, don’t rely too heavily on soundbites. Listeners and followers would rather know you are authentic (communicated via natural style), than the king of cliche.

More Sneaky Landmines

Last week I shared three sneaky landmines that every preacher faces in the ministry. I appreciated the good comments by Larry and Sudhir, so thought I’d bring their suggestions to the fore in this post. More landmines:

Thinking we need something new to say – Now just because a take on a passage has been the main one offered for generations does not make it right. Sometimes the church does put a spin on the truth or downright miss the point for long periods of time. However, as a preacher, my job is not to continually come up with something new. The ageless truth of the Bible, preached again with clarity and emphasizing the particular relevance for these listeners – that is the goal. And if you have a new view untouched by past generations and the scholars on your shelf of commentaries? Probably delay preaching that message for a few weeks, pray it through more and get into conversation with some trusted advisers . . . then if it is what the Bible teaches, preach it!

Majoring on Distinctive Minors – That’s not a new chord progression for the guitarist, it’s a temptation we all face. It is tempting to major on the minors that make us (my theology, our denomination, etc.) distinctive from others. Preach the dominant thought in each unit of thought, don’t make it your goal to always get this feedback: “Ooo, I never would have seen that in that passage!” (This is disturbing feedback!)

Pointing the Preaching Finger at Someone – You know who is at the forefront of your mind. That face that is constantly there as you prepare your message. Perhaps a critic. Perhaps someone who has angered you. Perhaps someone who has made it their mission to bring you down, so you are tempted to make it your mission to launch applicational mortars from the relative security of the pulpit. Don’t. Preach the Word for the benefit of all. Don’t take aim and fire cheap shots. To do so is a poor strategy on many levels, not least the spiritual level!